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Posted 21-03-2020 by Sally Guillaume
When the toddler finally falls asleep and you know you have an hour, two if you are lucky, to answer your emails, price up a quote, cook dinner, clean the house and take a shower... before mayhem begins again!
Being cooped up in a small place with young children without a job to do is hard enough but trying to fit in work around them as well as manage their needs, and home school them too is challenging to say the least.
As children get older working from home gets easier but it's not without its challenges. Try convincing a client that you are the best placed to provide them with a professional customer service against a background noise of teenagers yelling at full throttle and slamming doors.
It is possible but it requires discipline, rules and serious self motivation, anti-distraction and anti-procrastination measures!
Here is my story and what I learned.
I started working from home to set up Undiscovered Mountains 15 years ago as a single mum with a baby living in an 18 square metre studio flat in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language. My baby is now 14 and I also have a 10 year old, have re-married, now speak French (and became French even - thank you Brexit), and live in a proper house with my own office (luxury) a garden and, until coronavirus arrived, was running a flourishing lifestyle travel business from home.
Here are the challenges and how I overcame them:
Creating Office Space:
When we are at home there are distractions everywhere. We have the washing to hang out, the dog to walk, the meals to prepare, the house to clean, the telly to watch..... With children in the mix, arguments to diffuse, homework to manage and activities to find to occupy them, there is little time left to work, never mind actually concentrate.
After many years of getting this wrong, I finally found what works for me and am adapting this to the new situation of having the children at home during school time.
Create your own defined office space and use it for work only. When I started this, I was in a studio so there was no private office space. It was a corner in the room, but never-the-less it was my work space and children were not allowed there (note the guilty face in the photo above). When I was in this space I worked with my headphones on to block out noise and I ignored my children unless it was urgent - they got the idea pretty quickly. Now I am lucky enough to have my own office and can close the door. I go to the office and it is my work space. Now with children also needing their workspaces for home schooling, we have adapted and each child has their own area. One in my office and one on the living room table.
It is very easy to get distracted with doing household chores, watching daytime telly or zoning on the internet instead of working. With no-one to supervise you self discipline and motivation are key to successful home working.
Set your self set hours to work at times when you know you are least likely to be distracted. If you have classic office hours customer facing roles to respond to by telephone, create set times for this. eg I am available for calls between 10 and 12 am every day. For non-customer facing tasks, you may prefer to set aside time in the evening after the children have gone to bed or early in the morning before they get up. Decide what works for you and stick to those hours.
Do not be tempted to go into your office space outside these hours. This is the hardest thing to do, especially when your telephone pings you a message that you need to respond to. Be disciplined. Work in your work hours and do not work outside them. This will give you the work life balance you will need to survive and make you more efficient in your working hours. Similarly, do not respond to distractions during your working hours. The dog can wait for a walk and if you have done your planning properly, washing, cooking and homework help all have scheduled times.
Explain the rules to family and make sure everyone understands these. If you have young children this is harder and you may have to work when they are sleeping to make this work or take it in turns with another parent if you have that luxury.
If you are a boss managing home workers, use project management tools to give your staff set tasks to do with set times to deliver. I use a free online project management tool called trello for this. You can create task cards that can be filed when done, discussed on the card and colour code depending on priority etc etc.
You may well find that you are far more efficient working from home (if you have set up the above suggestions) than you were in the office! However, it is harder to self motivate on your own and easy to feel overwhelmed, under supported and lack ideas and creativity with no-one to discuss these with.
I am a list maker. I make a list of all the things I need to do at the beginning of the day and tick these off. If I get ahead of myself I give myself little rewards like a 10 minute break drinking a coffee in the sun. I don't have a boss but I do manage others and do the same for them. It is important to schedule team chats and conferences in your planning. My ideas come to me when I go for a run in my 'exercise hour' when I let my mind wander! Find out what stimulates your creativity and build it in to your plan.
Skype meetings are great if you have good enough internet connection but if not a phone call is just as good. Giving feedback to colleagues for their work is important. You can't walk by their desk and say 'well done', but you can send them a smiley. We are on our own but we can still communicate and keeping people motivated will come from good communication, good discipline, setting clear tasks and timelines.
Dealing with Loneliness:
Office banter, saying hi to people on the way in to work, discussing ideas with colleagues disappears when you work from home. As an English person who spoke no French living in a small French village, I had the added difficulty of having no-one to speak to in my language and no easy access to classic support networks of meeting up with other parents not that I had the time for this anyway - I had a business to set up. So my social life was zero and my work life was in isolation. I had never felt so lonely in all my life. Our social life comes from both home and work and when you are on lock down, you miss both.
I soon learnt that speaking on the phone was going to be my lifeline for a work social life so without interfering too much on the work task in hand, I started asking the odd personal question to the stranger on the other end of the phone. This starts briefly with what's the weather like where you are and sharing snippets about your own life. Even ooh sorry, I must go now as I have to pick up my son from hockey can be the link required in the next conversation when you discover that her son plays hockey too. This is natural office banter but over the phone. I have work friends now that I am very close to but have still never met!
From a social point of view, the telephone also became my lifeline but it quickly became apparent that my English friends had absolutely no idea what I was going through - they all thought I was living the 'good life' in France.
Learning French became my priority but I couldn't go to lessons with a baby so I decided to meet my neighbours. I was very lucky to have a neighbour with a baby similar age to my own. I started to say 'bonjour', talked about the weather and gradually over time with lots of body language and lost in translation moments we became great friends. This is now one of my best friends.
Now, in coronavirus lockdown it is the time to say hello to the neighbours you never normally see. Talking over the garden fence respects social distancing rules and will give you much needed human contact in these difficult times. Make an effort to seek out those living alone or single parents with young children who will be in even more need of adult human interaction - even if it is just to talk about the weather from your balcony.
We are all going to have to get used to a new way of living for an undefined period of time and we need to look out for people who are struggling, isolated or just simply overwhelmed. Together we can do this with respect, thoughtfulness and kindness and we can still make certain parts of the economy tick over from the comfort of our pyjamas.
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